Neo-Proudhonian Anarchism (A Step toward Synthesis)

The more we learn about the history of mutualism, the clearer it becomes that the conception we have inherited was conceived—primarily by rivals of Proudhon’s thought—as a sort of theoretical foil for the communist “modern anarchism” of the late 19th century. It’s a rather complicated tale, since what Kropotkin called “modern anarchism” was, in fact, anarchism emerging for the first time, unless we count the purely literary emergence of the term in the works of Joseph Déjacque. There had, of course, been anarchists and theories of anarchy. And, having decided to adopt the language of anarchy, the anti-authoritarian communists no doubt felt some need to account for the relationship between their own thought and that of figures like Proudhon. In fact, they provided all kinds of accounts, not all of which were consistent with one another. Even simply tracing Kropotkin’s various explanations gives us a rather fascinating look into what was obviously a process of coming to terms with that early anarchist past. But a key part of that process was the establishment of mutualism as a term to designate all the non-communist (and presumably non-modern) elements that that had to be pushed to the margins so that “modern” anarchist thought could be reconstrued as fundamentally communist.

That involved a redefinition of mutualism, which had been, in Proudhon’s theory, one important tool in a very large kit. We might say, I think, with complete justice, that it really involved the invention of a previous form of anarchism, where there had been something rather different: the Proudhonian social science. Occurring at a time when the influence of Proudhonian thought was at a low ebb, it was a remarkably successful gambit, not least because a non-communist, but decidedly modern faction emerged to take up both the mutualist label and the opposition to anarchist communism—but also because knowledge of that earlier anarchist thought was also at a relatively low ebb. This isn’t the place to sort out in what proportion the discontinuity between periods and tendencies was produced by conscious ideological differences and to what extent those differences were themselves a product of discontinuity in the transmission of anarchistic ideas, but it seems almost certain that there was a bit of both.

The reinvention of mutualism would hardly concern us, of course, were it not for the fact that the continued references to Proudhon almost insured a more substantial return to his work, sooner or later. Proudhon’s actual body of work was too substantial an element to remain inert within the fabric of “modern” anarchism forever. While both communists and individuals made attempts to absorb and incorporate it, they never managed to dig very deep into the work. And this should probably not surprise us, as there was a very substantial conceptual gap between the era in which Proudhon’s thought emerged and that in which “modern” anarchism made its appearance. In the late 19th century, a split between anarchist individualists (“mutualists”) and anarchist communists could perhaps hardly have been avoided, but when Proudhon first declared himself an anarchist individualisme and socialisme still represented undesirable extremes that radicals sought to avoid. In this sense, Proudhon was very much in the camp of Fourier and Pierre Leroux. And as some of the insurgent or resurgent mutualisms that have appeared in the last couple of decades have leaned more toward that approach, while others have more closely resembled he tendencies of the late 19th century, mutualism has reemerged with significant tensions, both “internal” and “external,” essentially and probably inevitably built into its very fabric.

After all, it has taken modern mutualists that couple of decades to begin to come to terms with our own history. As I’ve observed on a number of occasions (see, for example, “The Mutualist’s Dilemma“), the early re-adopters of mutualism in this century took up the name before we could be entirely sure just what we had got ourselves into. That’s been a source of energy and urgency in some instances, while in others it has been a source of uncertainty both among and about mutualists. It is not clear, however, that it could have been any other way:

When we acknowledge the extent to which the history of mutualism was written by divers hands, with essential contributions by friends and foes alike, we’re left with an odd dynamic. What we might think of as the general definition of mutualism, the collection of elements that are shared by the various tendencies that have shared the name, pretty clearly appears as a lowest common denominator, not always sufficient to distinguish mutualism from other tendencies, rather than a description of what is distinctive about any of the mutualist tendencies. The result is that the development and enrichment of any or all of the various mutualist tendencies tends to pull their centers farther and farther from the shared elements. The clearer the various mutualisms become, the harder it is to say just what mutualism is in general.

That obviously has organizational consequences that we can’t ignore. [Note on “The Mutualist’s Dilemma” (2017)]

Naturally, this odd dynamic has been felt most keenly when we have attempted to really incorporate Proudhon’s social science into a mutualism that originated in part as a way of avoiding just such an incorporation. In those moments, the Proudhonians—”classical” mutualists, “two-gun” mutualists, proponents of Neo-Proudhonian mutualism, etc.—have, to one degree or another, had to face a sort of double displacement, attempting to find a homelike space in a milieu where Proudhon’s name is everywhere, but also almost everywhere seemingly taken in vain. But, in one form or another and to a greater or lesser degree, it seems that mutualism has been experienced quite widely as something of a dilemma—and it seems unsurprising that prominent proponents of various mutualist currents have at times looked to other identifications, such as anarchism without adjectives, to express their aspirations.

It was during a sort of trial separation with mutualism that I first adopted the Neo-Proudhonian anarchist label, driven in part by a frustration with the internal contradictions of the specifically mutualist milieu and in part by a sense that, outside of the context of anarchist communist hegemony (a context I still understood only dimly in its historical aspects), there was very little reason to call an ideology based on Proudhon’s social science anything but anarchism, plain and simple. My “year without mutualism” was a fascinating, useful experiment, but what I ultimately learned from it was that the front line in attempting to inject what we could of Proudhon’s social science into “modern” anarchism was probably a Neo-Proudhonian mutualism, laying claim to the space allotted to the traditional Proudhon-reference and making every effort to turn that reference into something more substantive.

I still believe that. Within the context of what “modern” anarchism has become, Neo-Proudhonian mutualism has been and will, I expect, continue to be the site for an odd sort of reentryism, an infiltration aiming at the general enrichment of the anarchist milieu, but necessarily undertaken on as a sort of combat. The neo-Proudhonians can at least make a reasonable claim, whether it is evident to those around us or not, that we didn’t start this particular fight.

But I think the most optimistic among us—and I suppose that might ultimately be me—probably has to acknowledge that there will be limits to how far such an infiltration can be expected to succeed. There is, for example, probably no getting around the gulf between Proudhon’s original context and the context that informed the formation—and arguably still informs the character—of “modern” anarchism. Among other things, every effort to treat Proudhon’s social science as if it was an ideology, equivalent in that sense to anarchism, probably places us on shaky ground. And then there are the questions we have raised recently about the relationship between the “resultant anarchy” that appears to be a focus in Proudhon’s later work and the dominant conceptions of anarchy in the anarchist milieu.

If we were in the mood to be bold and to turn some familiar criticisms of Proudhon back on the anarchist critics, we might claim, for example, that the apparent shift in language and emphasis in The Federative Principle—often understood as Proudhon’s abandonment of anarchy in favor of federalism—really does mark a divide, but one in which the a priori abstract anarchy rejected by Proudhon (as at best a “perpetual desideratum” and at worst a “trap”) became the basis for at least some currents of “modern anarchism,” while Proudhon’s thought pursued what we have been calling resultant anarchy. We can certainly entertain this possibility without simply choosing a side and dismissing actually existing anarchism. We could pin our hopes on synthesis—as indeed I do—and labor to find ways in which the two conceptions of anarchy that seem to diverge might be merged or mingled once again in ways that ultimately transform and enrich anarchist theory. But I suspect there is a bit of an apples and oranges problem facing us, precisely because Proudhon never really provided us with an anarch-ism and instead provided us with plenty of cautions about constructing those sorts of systems.

What an apples to apples comparison would demand of us is either the elaboration of some sort of non-ideological anarchist theory (or science) or the elaboration of an ideology derived, to the extent that it is possible, from Proudhonian social science. Given the tendencies of the era, the latter seems the much more likely development. I certainly don’t love the idea of a Proudhonian ideology, but I find it hard to think of actually existing anarchism in any other way, so if we are looking for a contrast to the anarchism we know, this seems to be at least one obvious method of proceeding.

For me, the saving grace in this exercise is that it would be precisely that—an exercise—a sustained thought experiment designed to help us cope better with anarchism, the ideology that we have already, for better or worse, embraced. For anyone for whom the question really is simply What would Proudhon do? I would expect the road might well lead in other directions, but that’s not really my question. Instead, I find myself thinking along lines like this: Anarchism seems to have reached something of an impasse. How do we escape the impasse? Are the resources already at least theoretically available to us that might help? Does the impasse—or the appearance of impasse—arise from elements of our tradition? And so on.

In many ways, this attempt to imagine what anarchism might have been, if it had the roots it (at least sometimes) says it does, is like the various alternate history scenarios I have proposed from time to time. In the writings on atercracy, I have raised the question of what the international anti-authoritarian agitation might have looked like if it’s first historians had come from different times and places than they actually did. A real anti-authoritarian synthesis need not limit itself to the avenues explored historically, provided we can find means of somehow simulating additional alternatives. Similarly, if we embrace the necessity of synthesis as part of a theory of anarchist development, our practice probably calls for attention to anything that we believe we have incorporated (or used up), but obviously have notand this seems to be the category in which we are likely to find much of Proudhon’s thought.

So—as a step towards a broader anarchist synthesis—I want to propose the possibility of a Neo-Proudhonian anarchism—a modern anarchism as it might have emerged from an anarchist history less marked by discontinuity. I want to raise a new flag in the already crowded skies of the anarchist milieu, but I want it to be more like the flags that mark a gale warning or small craft advisory than the various black-and-whatever emblems we still feel the need to salute. And, if all goes well, I would like to do a bit of work beneath itprobably dedicating the first half of the book I have been calling Anarchism, Plain and Simple too that work (although at this point I think the “plain and simple” is going to have to go)and then I would love nothing better than to haul that thing down, fold it up nicely and put it away somewhere safe, while I move onto other things.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 1912 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.